Navy Dolphins Near Coronado Find Torpedo—from the 19th Century

Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Howell torpedo

The U.S. Navy has announced plans to phase dolphins out of its Marine Mammal Program starting in 2017 after a long, illustrious run, but the dolphins they presently employ aren’t resting on their laurels.

Bottlenose dolphins stationed in San Diego and trained to find undersea objects located a torpedo in March near Coronado that was last used in the 19th century. The Howell torpedo, only one of 50 made between 1870 and 1889, was one of the world’s first self-propelled torpedoes. The Howell just found is only the second known to still exist.  

Once located by the dolphins, Navy divers retrieved the object, which was laying on the ocean floor in two pieces. There was no immediate explanation given as to why it was on the ocean floor. It will be cleaned up and shipped to the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard.

The Howell was made of brass, measured 11 feet long and was driven by a 132-pound flywheel that would spin to 10,000 rpm before launch. Its design was even more remarkable when one considers that it was made before homes had electricity. The torpedo had a range of 400 yards and traveled at a speed of 25 knots. The Howell remained in the Navy’s arsenal until ship designs relocated torpedo tubes below the water line and it was replaced by the Whitehead Torpedo Mark 1, 2, and 3.

The Navy currently uses around 80 dolphins in its marine mammal program, but advances in pilotless drone technology could curtail their future use. In addition to patrolling U.S. coastal areas, they have been deployed to Bahrain and Iraq in the past to protect U.S. vessels during wartime by spotting mines and other underwater threats.

The once-secretive program was declassified in the 1990s, but has been dogged by controversy over treatment of the animals and speculation as to the nature of its mission and training. The dolphins are expected to be reassigned to other jobs by 2017, but the 40 sea lions still on the payroll are expected to continue in their roles.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Navy Dolphins Find 19th Century Howell Torpedo off Calif. Coast (by JohnThomas Didymus, Digital Journal)

Navy Dolphins Discover Rare Old Torpedo off Coronado (by Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times)

SSC Pacific Recovers Historic Howell Torpedo (by Elisha Gamboa, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System)

Military Dolphins Get Walking Papers as Drones Take Their Jobs (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov California)

History of the Howell Torpedo (U.S. Navy)

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